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Mr. Laws: Is the hon. Lady really saying that she has a fundamental objection to the collection of child maintenance resting with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, or is she simply saying that, because that Department has problems at present, now is not the time to make the transition?

Miss McIntosh: I personally have a fundamental problem with transferring responsibility from the Department, for the reasons that I have spent the past few minutes setting out. Computer problems are common to both Departments, so nothing would be gained by such a transfer—one set of harassed staff would be swapped for another. Another fundamental issue is that we cannot expect the person who is awaiting an assessment for payment from the absent parent—that is, the parent with care—to wait until the year end before the Inland Revenue can work out what the absent parent's total income was in that year. For those reasons—the computer issue and the income issue—such a transfer is simply not the way to proceed.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I wish to comment quickly on two points that the hon. Lady has made. She compares the tax credit system with the CSA's problems, but surely the problem with tax credits is that underpayment and overpayment are built into the system. That is not a matter of organisational failure in the way that we suggest is the case with the CSA. She implies that the computer problems are comparable to those in the Inland Revenue. However, the Inland Revenue deals with an enormously larger number of cases and I receive almost no complaints about its systems, certainly not from my surgery case load.

Miss McIntosh: I should be very happy to share with the hon. Gentleman the complaints that are made to me about the system. I have personally dealt with a number of cases in which the absent parent's assessment of what he is due to pay has changed, but the CSA has simply not been able to react quickly enough to change the assessment and the parent has been overpaying. It is incredibly difficult to recover that money, particularly when the absent parent's income fluctuates.

In a spirit of helpfulness and co-operation and in the consensual nature of the debate, I wish to set out what we believe the policies must focus on. First, resolving chronic IT problems must be a priority, but it is difficult to do that for the reasons that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and others have set out. It is difficult for the
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House to have a full understanding of the situation, especially because it has not had sight of the Child Support Agency IT contract and hon. Members are thus not aware of the full nature of the problem. I make a plea to the Minister and the Department to give us sight of the contract so that we can find out whether the problems are more contractual, or related to delivery.

Secondly, we would like to improve management. We should rely heavily on the conclusions of the Select Committee report from January 2005. The report focuses on the lack of monitoring, supervision and training of management, and we owe it to the CSA staff to give them all those three things. I think that the Minister would not disagree that the agency lacks leadership, direction and an ethos that would allow the problems to be resolved. The Government need to address the problem, and then the new management must sort out the internal administrative mayhem that is causing so much confusion for parents and staff alike.

There should be greater focus on compliance and enforcement. I disassociate myself from the gimmick of tagging. I believe that there have been only eight cases in which a driving licence has been suspended and only five cases in the past year in which a driving licence has been physically removed. Why have the Government been so slow to use the clear enforcement procedures—the punishments—that are already in place?

Natascha Engel: On enforcement, what is the Conservative party's position on cherry-picking? That is inevitable when there is a huge backlog of cases, because a case manager will choose those that are easiest to deal with. I know of two cases that highlight the situation. I   can trump the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) because I know of a case that has been going on for 11 years. The woman is owed the huge amount of £20,000—I do not know whether anyone can top that—and the man is self-employed. He is in and out of the labour market, moves house a lot and has a lot of different partners, so it is difficult to find him and the agency is not prepared to make much of an effort. However, the CSA is still chasing a man who is voluntarily overpaying his ex-partner, even though it has evidence that he is paying the money, so there is an administrative error that is not being dealt with. How would the Conservatives deal with very easy and very hard cases?

Miss McIntosh: We will not flinch from making difficult choices. When I read last year's excellent Work and Pensions Committee report, I was struck by the fact , as the Minister set out, that we are asking agency staff and officers to work in difficult conditions. Two ladies from   the CSA who came along to my surgery were virtually threatened by an otherwise mild-mannered gentleman—he was mild mannered when he came into the surgery, but certainly not when he went out. Training, monitoring and supervision are of key importance.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): It seems to me that although we can talk about changing systems, we often forget that the thing works at a minute level. Our caseworkers require a great deal of sensitivity and finesse. We often forget to put training in place to allow that sensitivity and finesse to be displayed for our
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benefit, as taxpayers. Will my hon. Friend urge the Government to address the matter because we have not spent the necessary time on that delicate area?

Miss McIntosh: I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. He speaks with great passion and with his experience in business, so I hope that the Government will act on what he says.

Thirdly, we should foster better relationships between agency staff and both parents—the parent with care and the absent parent. The agency must allow assigned staff members to establish continuity of contact with both parents, instead of having a situation in which parents deal with a new member of staff each time they contact the agency. In its January 2005 report, the Select Committee rightly identified that approach as the one that works so well in the Australian system.

Fourthly, we would identify the functions that could be better provided by the private sector. That idea has not yet been mentioned in the debate, but I hope that it will find support on both sides of the House. Key public services should be free at the point of delivery, but there is no reason why they should not be provided by the private sector. We must consider whether some of the agency's work could be carried out by others more suited to the task—for example, the enforcement function.

We have had a good start to the debate and I look forward to hearing other speakers. I hope that the Minister will see fit to share the conclusions of the review with the House as soon as possible, perhaps even before we are told the nature of the Government's proposed solutions.

5.25 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I, like other hon. Members, congratulate the Liberal Democrats on choosing for today's debate a subject that affects too many of our constituents, who will be following the debate with considerable interest.

It was a pleasure to sit on the Government Benches listening to the Minister treat the House of Commons as though it is composed of grown-ups rather than children. His speech was serious and considered.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh); this is the first time that I have heard her open a debate for the official Opposition and I am a great admirer of her skills. I fear, however, that she wrote her speech before she had heard how careful the Minister was in what he said and did not say. The way in which she committed the Conservative party to the Child Support Agency reminds me of a comment made by David Steel, now Lord Steel, when a prominent Liberal supporter left the Liberals to join another party: he said that he thought it was the first time in history that a rat had a joined a sinking ship. That may well be the position in which the Conservatives find themselves when they read the Minister's speech carefully.

Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the staff of the CSA. I have not seen the figures that the Minister has showing an increase, and a planned increase, in the number of staff working for the CSA, but I was going to suggest a reason why their number was falling. When the agency was created, people from the private sector and the public sector joined it with huge enthusiasm
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because they thought it had a desirable objective—to ensure that people pay maintenance when maintenance is due—and that they would get considerable job satisfaction from working for it. Given that we have provided them with a broken-backed IT system, it is hugely to their credit that so many of them continue to try to provide a first-class service and turn up each day to do probably the most stressful job in the public sector.

I was heartened by the Minister's speech. The Government now have the chief executive's report, although the Minister has wisely decided not to let us see it before the Government have come up with their proposals. I would be very surprised if the chief executive did not accept that his agency has deep-seated problems, which the Minister set out in a serious way, and if he did not accompany his acceptance of that analysis with a request for more money. I hope that the Government do not follow the line that the Opposition have advocated. I hope that they do not believe that the service can be patched up and that another huge tranche of taxpayers' money should be directed to an end that I   believe is unachievable.

If the chief executive wants another £500 million of taxpayers' money, I would prefer it to be given to the mothers and children who do not get their maintenance. We should not try to find the end of the rainbow and think that EDS—if only we feed the company more money—will come up with an IT system that is fit for purpose.

So when we hear the Government statement, I hope that we will get two things from them. First, how can we improve this broken-backed system to provide a better service for claimants in the foreseeable future? There is no way in which long-term reform can be introduced at a moment's notice. Secondly, how do we turn our attention to that serious long-term reform?

Some of the contributions have already suggested to the Minister short-term measures that might help the agency perform better. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) suggested taking out   of the day-to-day management of the system—or   attempt to manage the system—what she euphemistically called complicated cases. Birkenhead constituents would have another name for fathers with multiple cases before the CSA. If those cases were dealt with by a special unit, that might help the running of the rest of the agency. My constituents might also suggest some sanctions that should be applied to such gentlemen, who might have up to 10 children by different partners, but parliamentary protocol prevents me from suggesting what that solution might be.

As a further suggestion, is it possible to move over from the old system to the new system all those who, under the old system, have nil assessments? Most of those would be people who were on benefit when the assessment was made. Under the new system, all of them will be required to make a small contribution. Could not they as a group be moved over, or is the agency's IT system such that it cannot talk to the IT system of Jobcentre Plus? Is that the real reason why some of the obvious ways of immediately and significantly improving the performance of such a broken-backed agency are not encouraged?
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When the hon. Member for Vale of York was advocating the private sector, I thought that she would roll up her sleeves and make some suggestions. As she failed to do so, let me come to her aid. We should look to the private sector to help the agency trace parents for   whom we have no addresses. Perhaps foolishly, I   suggested in the House that we should call such personnel bounty hunters. I did not realise that the then Secretary of State would find that too shocking a suggestion. In this country we usually speak of bailiffs. Surely there is nothing to be lost by telling the private sector, "If you can find these people, you get paid. If you don't find them, there is no fee. Finding them and getting the first payments made will attract a very substantial sum indeed."

Those are three suggestions that Ministers might consider when trying to patch up what is recognised in two parts of the House, if not the third, to be a broken-backed system that will not be made to work and is not for fit for purpose.

When I read the Order Paper this morning, I had considerable sympathy for the position in which Balfour found himself when he led the Tory party, which was riven asunder by the issue of tariff reform—so much so that one Liberal Member of the day, hearing the then Prime Minister again trying to appease both sides of his party, said that the Prime Minister had once again come to the House and nailed his colours to the fence.

Looking at the Order Paper, I wondered how anybody could not vote for the Liberal Democrat motion. I then read our amendment and wondered how anybody could not vote for that. It is the first time that our side has responded with a degree of wit when tabling amendments to the main motion. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will vote for the amendment, and that our side will pay the compliment of voting for the substantive motion.

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